Regional Reviews: Boston
James Baldwin writes in The Fire Next Time, in reference to jazz: "To be sensual, I think, is to accept and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, to be present in all that one does..."
Sister Margaret Alexander, the matriarch of her family and of her small Harlem church, makes that acceptance in Baldwin's semi-autobiographical play, The Amen Corner. She gets there when the road she's forced to travel takes her back to the person she once was. This allows her to see, "It's a awful thing to think about, the way love never dies!"
This major revival of Baldwin's lesser-known play is the final offering in Nicholas Martin's triumphant first season as the Artistic Director of The Huntington Theatre in Boston. It was produced in association with Chicago's Goodman Theatre, where it originated under the snappy direction of Chuck Smith.
Written in 1954, shortly after his first novel Go Tell It on the Mountain, the play didn't receive a commercial production for another decade, not until Blues for Mr. Charlie had been critically well received on Broadway. In the two earlier works, Baldwin drew heavily on his own experiences growing up in Harlem, the stepson of a Pentecostal minister. In high school he was both a boy preacher and a member of the school's literary club.
In Baldwin's mind, the leap from pulpit to stage was a small one. As he wrote in his notes to the published play, "out of the ritual of the church, historically speaking, comes the act of the theatre, the communion which is the theatre."
Aiding that communion in this beautifully mounted production is the music, a mix of traditional gospel hymns and original pieces by music director William Kilgore, spiritedly performed by the ensemble. With the reappearance of Margaret's dying husband after a ten-year absence, secular music is added to the mix. Their son David, a musician like his father, is torn between the pious life advocated by his mother and the lure of his father's world of jazz which, he's beginning to think, is his true calling.
The moment when father and son get to know each other is, for me, the truest in the play. Phillip Edward VanLear, as the tubercular father, and Nikkieli DeMone, as the boy on the brink, play off each other like two skillful jazz musicians exploring a musical thought. I almost wish Baldwin had made that relationship the center of the play.
Pat Bowie has a tougher time convincing us to accept Sister Margaret's uncompromising position against the pulls of the secular world. She won't permit one of the elders to take a job driving a truck for a liquor distributor and councils a young woman praying for her sick baby to leave her husband if he won't accept God's intentions for their child.
As her own domestic life slips from her control, Sister Margaret also loses her grip on the congregation. Only her sister, stalwartly portrayed by Jacqueline Williams, stands by her, defending everything including the coveted Fridgedaire they've worked so hard to acquire.
Viewed today, the play's struggles are both disturbingly relevant and sadly dated. Many a contemporary single mother still must put the same dogged energy into protecting her children from the perceived and real dangers of the material world. But Sister Margaret's contention that it's the men in her life, including God, who've given her no alternatives, is harder to swallow.
My other quarrel is with the set. Felix E. Cochren gives us an evocative two-story structure, living quarters below and Church above, which may have better suited the Goodman Theatre's space. The Huntington is forced to lose several of the front rows in order to seat people where they can see the action on the upper tier. From my vantage point eight rows back, the actor's faces were sometimes obscured by a metal railing on the upper level, meant to keep them from making an unintentional leap of faith into our laps. My advice would be to opt for a seat in the mezzanine, if possible.
The Amen Corner is the solid work of a writer who was a keen observer of both his own life and the larger human experience and it demonstrates innate dramatic prowess. Judged by today's standards, it's a bit old fashioned and predictable, but Baldwin was just getting started. One can only sadly wonder what we've missed because he felt so little encouragement from the 1960s theatre establishment. Baldwin was working on a third play when he died in Paris in 1987.
The Amen Corner has been extended through June 23rd at The Huntington Theatre, 264 Huntington Avenue in Boston. For additional information and tickets call 617 266-0800 or visit www.bu.edu/HUNTINGTON.
-- Suzanne Bixby